What would you do with $1 million to spend on water?

One question, three answers. Or maybe it was one answer.

About 200 150 people got together Friday afternoon and evening for a symposium at Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis to encourage Minnesotans to think differently about water.

Beneath the Surface: Minnesota’s Pending Groundwater Challenge

It was put on by Students for Design Activism at the University of Minnesota, and attendees included landscape architects, public works people, state agency employees, academics, students and just plain folks. I moderated a panel whose topics ran from slowing down and using water in the Los Angeles River without flooding the city to some innovative (and oddly related) efforts to slow down cornfield drainage and reuse water to ease irrigation demands.

But what might stick with me longest came at the very end, around 9:30, after the food and drinks and a movie about the Colorado River narrated by Robert Redford called “Watershed.”

After hours of thinking  and talking about how Minnesotans don’t really value water enough, Matt Kucharski, executive vice president at PadillaCRT, posed this question: What would you do with a million dollars to get that to change? Three panelists took a shot at it.

Matthew Tucker, University of Minnesota professor of landscape architecture, thought a while and concluded he would use the money to launch a campaign that urged people to “begin to tell more water stories,” to think about the personal relationships they have with specific places, specific connections to water.

Deborah Swackhamer, professor and co-director of the Water Resources Center at the university, first pointed out that Minnesota actually has a lot more money than that to spend on cleaning and sustaining water via the Legacy Amendment. But pressed for a priority, she singled out the relationship between farming and water.

“If I had another million dollars, I would try to find a creative way to think about growing food and having water,” she said, to somehow de-fuse the antagonism and finger-pointing that seems quick to erupt when agriculture’s use of water comes up. Earlier she had said, “I don’t blame the farmers as much as our institutions. We force them to do bad things.”

The last word went to Dorene Day, an Ojibwe-Anishinabe woman from the Bois Forte Reservation in northern Minnesota who, as part of the Indigenous Peoples’ Task Force, has worked to increase awareness of freshwater issues throughout the nation. She would, she said, campaign for people to recite a water prayer, which she then did in Ojibwe. She translated it to say simply, “We love you, water.”

Three different answers, none of which involved pumping or cleaning or saving or conserving. Instead, they all in some way suggested starting with conversation.

What would you do with a million dollars to spend on water in Minnesota?